Since last Saturday, when the Titanic sank all over again at BFI Southbank, I’ve been wanting to rehearse the considerable impact and pleasures of The Debris Field: a multimedia performance, commemoration, and contemplation prompted by the cultural flotsam let loose by the disaster 100 years ago, and presented on its 100th anniversary.
Poets Simon Baraclough, Isobel Dixon, and Chris McCabe introduced the idea to the BFI and brought it to fruition, drawing on the talents of composer Oliver Barrett of Bleeding Heart Narrative and film-maker Jack Wake-Walker, with Tom Witcomb expertly sliding the levels and conducting the sound desk on the night. Add to that the poets’ strong cinematic sensibilities, and Simon’s good singing voice (the singing-performing-poetry complex is a rich one).
A 45 minute-long performance, then, in the BFI’s Blue Room, on 14 April, three hours after Neptune Collongere took the Grand National by a nostril (and bringing the poets, a superstitious lot, a £250 windfall. ‘Neptune’, see.) And 90 people squeezed in, and the film splayed across the wall by three projectors. To do this, Tom needed to press play on three laptops at once; a tricky task with two hands, and managed by putting two space bars as close to each other as Apple would allow, and even then – how aleatory it all was – the middle screen was a frame, or two, behind its neighbours.
What words, what pictures, what sounds. The poetry, multi-voiced, not just the three live ones, but the verbatim sources, the newspaper cuttings, the contemporary accounts. The film, like Bill Morrison’s Decasia, unspooling abstractions, and star-bright seascapes. The music, textured, haunting. And into the mix, the building. Ambient kitchen and bar sound leaked into the room, chiming with the accounts of the Titanic’s galleys, the glass of benugo tinkling in the ship’s lounges and restaurants. And when traffic passed above us, the building quivered; ‘a slight tremor’, in Isobel’s coinage.
The poets faced the screen, that was the major innovation. We’ve had poetry/ film here before, but the conjunction isn’t always comfortable: which comes first; who takes centre stage; who laughs last. But this was different. The thing conceived as a whole, and each mode playing its part. It had to be live, with poets ranked at the back, speaking to the film. Film rarely talks back, of course…